Sunday, 17th April, 2011
Stranger in the Forest (I)
In 1982, Eric Hansen, the author of ‘Stranger in the Forest – On Foot Across Borneo ‘ laid out the best map of Borneo he could find (mapped by the British Ministry of Defence) on the floor of the long house he was temporarily staying in, for the benefit of his two, about-to-be, Penan jungle guides (Penan is pronounced Pen an ; the second syllable is stressed). They pressed down the folds with the palms of their hands in bewilderment. They’d never seen a map before. Eric pointed at a spot on the map indicating where he wanted to get to. One of the guides placed a stick, a stone and a leaf, in a line, in a space on the floor, next to the map. The stick represented a river, the stone a mountain, and the leaf, the Kelabit highlands. This was the journey that lay ahead. This was the map they understood. Eric folded his map away feeling quite childish and inadequate.
Leaving the long house they crossed the nearby village’s paddy fields soon reaching the edge of the forest, which was primary; unaltered for millions of years. The trees stood over 200 feet tall. The only food they had with them was 25 kg of red-tinted hill rice and tea. They had no compass, medicine or radio. Once inside it was dark and cool. Eric wouldn’t see the sun for the next four weeks. He needed to be committed. They walked for 8-10 hours a day covering four miles each day. There was no path; just streams, slimy rocks, steep muddy ridges, slippery roots and steep ledges. The walking was hard. John and Tingang Na, the two guides, knew the way from a combination of the changing direction of the streams, certain vines on certain trees and the angles of sunlight breaking through the canopy overhead. To an outsider the forest interior all looks the same; navigation markers are scarce: ‘Take 2 steps off the trail, get disorientated, and that’s the last anyone sees of you.’ (SITF)
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